Israel investigates tar spill calamity, places inquiry under gag order

The decision to censor the details was described by Israeli media as "irregular."

President Reuven Rivlin visits cleanup efforts at Herziliya beach after oil spill (photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
President Reuven Rivlin visits cleanup efforts at Herziliya beach after oil spill
(photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
Israel’s investigation of the oil spill which has led to an unprecedented ecological disaster Mediterranean Coast in recent days has been placed under a gag order.
The Haifa Magistrates Court issued the order Monday, following a request by the Environmental Protection Ministry.
Any details which could identify the suspects – including the names of people or vessels, destination or exit ports, navigation routes or cargo – may not be published under the order.
Israeli media described the censorship decision as “irregular.”
The ministry told Maariv, The Jerusalem Post’s sister publication, that the censorship order was made because “the investigation conducted by the National Marine Environment Protection Division and the Green Police has complex international aspects.”
On Sunday, Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel said that the ministry was “focused on locating the ship responsible for the significant pollution and it is being assisted by all international bodies.” Meanwhile Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has met with Egyptian Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources Tarek el-Molla on an official visit to Israel.
“I have now spoken to the Egyptian energy minister who came to us, and we have suggested that all the ships you see here will run on natural gas instead of polluting fuel,” Netanyahu said while he and Gamliel visited the areas affected by the spill. “I believe that if there is accord among several countries, we can bring about a huge change in a few years.”
Molla also met with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin on Monday.
In response to reports that the Environmental Protection Ministry knew about the spill before the tar reached the shores of Israel, the ministry stressed that it did not have any prior warning about the spill until the tar reached the coast on February 17.
According to the ministry, the spill occurred over 50 kilometers off the coast of Israel outside its territorial waters. Israel is a party to the Barcelona Convention, which requires countries and vessels to report any unusual event, but such a report did not come to Israeli authorities.
After the ministry became aware of the incident, it contacted the Regional Marine Pollution Emergency Response Center (REMPEC) from Malta and the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) with a search request using their satellite systems. The Europeans conducted a close inspection which found a number of possible suspects in the area. The findings were examined by the ministry immediately after being received. One suspect was located 50 km. opposite the coast of Ashkelon, using a model for predicting sea current movements run by the ministry.
Some 10 ships have been located as possible suspects and the ministry is hoping to find the culprit and take legal action.   Two of the suspected ships docked at the port of Ashdod recently. Once suspected ships are identified, the ministry will contact the relevant international authority to take action against them.
However, several environmental NGOs  said they do not trust the authorities’ course of action.
“When the entities operating at sea and produce a risk of pollution are rich oil and shipping companies that have much influence on the regulator, Zalul demands a transparent investigation and demands that the [censor] order be lifted immediately,” said Maya Jacobs, director-general of the Zalul Environmental Association.
In response to the gag order, Adam Teva V’Din (Israel Union for Environmental Defense) warned that “hiding all issues related to the investigation of the tar disaster is a fatal blow to public confidence in the government and regulators who are supposed to ensure the safety of the public and the environment. On environmental issues, when it comes to disasters of this magnitude, transparency and disclosure of information to the public is critical and enshrined in the law.”
Adam Teva V’Din is examining options to appeal the censor order.
Gamliel said on Sunday that her ministry would immediately request that, among other measures, the government approve budgets for beach rehabilitation, manpower and national preparedness to combat sea and beach oil pollution.
On Monday, MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) called on the state comptroller to investigate the government’s handling of the tar spill.
“Behind the grim images of pollution on the beaches are many failures that require in-depth examination. It is a man-made [tragedy] that could have been prevented,” she said. “A speedy and thorough procedure to investigate the incident is vital. Without decisive action by your office, the next ecological disaster is only a matter of time.”
The coastal local authorities that are part of the Sharon-Carmel Union of Cities announced on Monday that they would halt cleanup efforts along the beach after the Finance Ministry refused to approve the plan and budget presented by the Environmental Protection Ministry. The authorities stressed that they were not prepared to fund the cleanup off the backs of the residents and authorities. An emergency meeting on the matter was to be held on Monday evening.
Images of sea creatures, turtles, birds and shorelines coated by the mass of oil that has washed up on Israel’s coast have led to persistent public demands that the government track down the polluter. The Nature and Parks Authority warned that it will take a long time to remove the tar from the beaches.
Thousands of volunteers, including IDF soldiers, have been working in recent days to help clean up the beaches and coastal areas.
Rivlin visited the coast at Herzliya on Monday and thanked volunteers for their work in cleaning up the beaches and saving sea creatures.
Sticky black deposits are now also visible on beaches in a nature reserve near Tyre, south Lebanon.
Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister Hassan Diab said on Monday he was following up on the oil spill that has reached Lebanon and has tasked the defense minister, environment minister and the National Council for Scientific Research to pursue the matter, a statement from his office said.
The United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) will be asked to draw up an official report, the statement said.
Reuters contributed to this report.
Reuters contributed to this report.